Ultimately, in her work Laboring Women (2004), Jennifer Morgan accomplishes one of her main goals of debunking previous misconceptions in the historical narrative of Atlantic slavery that African men were more prominent and more desirable for labor than African women. Stating in her epilogue that “On the most reductive level, this study has illustrated simply that African women were there,”Morgan constructs a history of the Atlantic world that brings women to the forefront of early American slavery through, fundamentally, their abilities to reproduce and perform equal labor to men.
Before delving into the stronger points of Morgan’s book, I would first wish to point out one crucial aspect of enslaved African women’s lives in relation to reproduction that I found missing from Morgan’s narrative: the prevalent sexual exploitation of female slaves by their white owners. In her fifth chapter, Morgan states that “the proximity of white owners and enslaved women cleared the way for white men to more easily identify black women as potential sexual outlets for themselves.” Additionally, Morgan had previously discussed in chapter three Virginia’s 1662 law that slave women’s children, despite the status of the father, would remain slaves. Neither of these points, despite her attention to the unique experience of women as child-bearers or mothers, gets much attention at all. A conversation on this topic would have aided Morgan’s book enormously, as it would have enhanced discussion on her point on the difficulty of motherhood as a slave (particularly if a child was half white) as well as her point on slavery’s contradiction (as slaveowners consistently exploited their “property”sexually and had children by them).
However, perhaps one of the most illuminating and persuasive points of Morgan’s argument is her discussion of women as central characters in the formation of early conceptions of racial difference. Using early popularized travel narratives as her key primary sources for her opening chapter, Morgan powerfully illuminates the centrality of African and Native American women’s physical and sexual characteristics in the creation of otherness, an otherness which came to be applied to men as well in the justification for racialized slavery in the Americas. Morgan discusses the combined popular topics of pregnancy, nakedness, sexual allure, and monstrosity in this literature to bring readers back to the essential contradiction faced by slaveowners of degrading human beings to the status of chattel. Morgan brings readers back to this contradiction throughout her narrative, importantly explaining different laws and regulations put in place by slaveowners to prevent and discourage their both rational and emotional property from running away.
While I personally found Morgan’s subsequent chapters to be perhaps too hypothetical and not as strongly centered around her focus of African women’s reproductive abilities as I would have liked, she nonetheless gives convincing and essential insight into the demographics of early American slavery, particularly for the Carolinas and Barbados. Slaveowners, as businessmen, kept careful records about their slaves, and Morgan uses these records extensively to show the numbers of male and female slaves brought into the English colonies on slave ships, how many male and female slaves were owned by different slaveowners, and how many male and female slaves were planned on being distributed as property as inheritance upon the death of a slaveowner. Through these sources, Morgan was able to admirably break into the largely-unchartered territory of historical study on enslaved women, showing that African women, because of their potential for increasing profit through their reproductive ability while simultaneously providing almost equal free labor to men, were both highly valued as property and were as numerous as male slaves.